Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Movement in Scene: Writer as Director, Part 2

By Deb McLeod

I’ve recently begun using Freytag’s Pyramid to plot my scenes. When I first learned about the Pyramid, it was in relation to the story as a whole. But I have found that using a mixture of five-point and three-point scenes has really made my writing sing.

When you’ve mapped out your scenes with this underlying structure, there is forward movement and you’re less likely to just be dumping information on the reader.

What Scenes Are

First, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page with what a scene is. For our purposes, a scene is a unit of novel time where something changes. It might be the location. It might be the time. Or it might even be the attitude. But it’s a block of time that brings the reader from one point to another. It’s generally in real time and isn’t a block of narrative summary, though it might contain narrative summary for description or catching characters up to one another.

Scene Cluster

A scene cluster is something I’ve been working on recently. A cluster can be a few scenes that might take place over different landscapes but that relate to one another. Perhaps there are three mini-scenes leading up to a big scene that has a climax that changes everything. Those mini-scenes are necessary to set the stage for the big scene. So the entire thing is a scene cluster and may only have one climax. We’ll get to examples below.

Freytag’s Pyramid
Exposition – this sets up the situation
Rising Action – this is where the conflict in the scene or cluster begins
Climax – this is the pinnacle of the scene
Falling Action – this is the reaction to the climax
Resolution – this sets up the scene to come and sometimes contains a twist
Here is a silly example I came up with during a recent writing circle so I could teach my writers how to use the method: Maria is an accounts payable office worker on a transformational Outward Bound-type journey with several people in her office. She does not want to be there.

The protagonist is Maria and the antagonist (the character who keeps the story going) is Sherry, the accounts receivable office worker and Maria’s arch rival. Here is a scene cluster as we begin to shape this portion of our example story.

  1. Exposition – This is sets up the situation. This is where you will anchor the reader into the scene. Maybe describe some of the setting. Maria knows they people from her office will be staying in small two-person cabins in the mountains. The scene opens with Maria driving through beautiful scenery on a sunlit day. In the Exposition, you’re going to want to set up some of the mood and setting. Maybe even the mood of the character. Maria is extremely reluctant be there. But her coworkers, especially Sherry, teased her so badly she had to accept. 
  2. Rising Action – Here is where the conflict begins to push the character’s buttons. Maybe here she can’t find the turnoff. Her cell has no reception and she can’t call for directions. She was already running late because she didn’t want to be there. Now she’s going to be really late. Maybe she decides to turn back. She’ll come up with an excuse later. Just as she begins to turn around a Volkswagen bus pulls up with one of the Outward Bound guides and she follows him to the camp. As they’re driving over the rutted road her little car bottoms out and she’s getting more and more stressed. She thinks about the days ahead. Physical activity that will push her to her limits and will also be in front of all the people in the department. Especially Sherry, the girl who sits in the cubicle next to her. The girl Maria most despises.
  3. Climax – This is the pinnacle of the scene. They pull onto the compound lot and get out of the car. The guide points to Maria’s cabin and who is sitting out front? You guessed it. Her nemesis, her new partner and her bunkmate, Sherry.
  4. Falling Action – This is the reaction to the climax. Maria turns to get her bag out of the car and hide her reaction. But Sherry comes up to her. “About time you got here. I requested you as my partner. You’re the most athletic girl in the office and you are going to win this thing for me.” How does Maria react to that? Notice that this will begin to set up later events. 
  5. Resolution – What throws this scene into the next? Note the twist. Maria follows Sherry into the house annoyed at the curly blond flip in Sherry’s ponytail. Of course, Sherry took the good bunk and her stuff is already crowding the small cabin. As Maria unloads her things onto her unmade bunk, Sherry turns to her and says, “You’ve got five minutes to change. We’re meeting for a rope climb and you’re up first.” 
The above example is a scene cluster. If you drill into some of the points, you’ll find that it’s made up of different scenes. You could break down the above five points into three separate scenes – Maria driving, Rescued by the Guide and In the Compound

If you took the first scene and broke it down into five points it might look like this:

Scene 1 – Driving
Step 1 The exposition would be establishing the setting of the car and where Maria is going and maybe how she feels about it.

Step 2 The rising action would be her difficulty in finding the turnoff. No cell reception, she’s late, etc.

Step 3 The climax would be her decision to turn around.

Step 4 The falling action would be her relief, then maneuvering the car and seeing a vehicle approach.

Step 5 The denouement might be her seeing the Outward Bound logo on the side of the truck and the feeling that she just got caught. Note that this pushes her into the next scene.
But it feels better to me to use the scenes as one cluster pulling the reader toward the climax of Maria’s realization that she’s bunking with Sherry.

Can you see how you might use the 5-point scene and scene cluster to give your writing movement?

About the Author: Deb McLeod, MFA, practices novel research immersion. For her novel, The Train to Pescara, Deb journeyed to Sardinia to study ancient goddess worship and spent time in the Abruzzi village her great-grandparents left in 1905. Her metaphysical knowledge for the Angel Thriller, The Julia Set, culminates from four years of studying and teaching meditation, clairvoyance and chakra healing. For over fourteen years, Deb McLeod has been a creative writing coach helping other writers to embrace their passion and get their words on the page. For more, see

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